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Historical Perspectives

seven days a week. SU Carburettors in Birmingham doubled its weekly output in less than a fortnight. Bank holidays and 'wakes weeks' were cancelled. Concern for finished appearance was ignored, as was routine factory maintenance. Normal working hours were set from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. but almost all workers exceeded them, many working until midnight then sleeping on the factory floor. In the munitions works, where immediate increases were regarded as essential, the problem became how to prevent overworking. At Metro-Vickers in Manchester those involved with radar worked solidly for forty-eight hours to produce 8 urgently needed transmitters. But in the longer term, excessive hours produced fatigue, poor health and increased absenteeism, with no great gains in productivity, to the extent that in June 1940 Bevin limited women to a 60-hour week and advised that men be restricted to the same.

As the war continued and a position of full employment was attained, the 'manpower budget' was balanced with a further extension of state control over industry through the Essential Works Order (EWO) of March 1941. Powers were taken to declare work done in any establishment 'essential' and within 9 months had been applied to 30,000 undertakings employing almost six million workers in engineering and aircraft factories, shipyards, mines and the building industry. Those employed in factories covered by an EWO could not leave without permission, nor could the employer sack any worker without the permission of the Ministry of Labour thus ending unnecessary movement of labour and finally preventing the poaching of skilled workers. The demand for skilled labour was also eased by the transferring of workers from other sectors into engineering and by further measures of dilution including the upgrading of semi-skilled workers and training in the Government Training Centres. By late 1941, as an extra 1,750,000 men were recruited into the services and the demand for munitions workers continued to grow, additional shortages of labour saw the compulsory registration for work of all men over 41 and all unmarried women between 19 and 30 years.

Realising that forcing people to work for low wages in primitive factories would provoke discord and damage morale, Bevin ensured the EWO contained important provisions to compensate the workers for their loss of freedom. All 'essential' undertakings were required to satisfy requirements on wages and conditions. Partly as a result of EWO, partly due to the longer hours worked and partly due to Bevin's extension of the Trades Boards to provide minimum wage rates for an additional million low paid workers, by 1943 average weekly wage rates had risen 35% above their 1938 level and average earnings in the metal, engineering and shipbuilding industries peaked at around 7 in January 1944 - a rise of 3 a week since 1940. Furthermore, employers were required under EWO to make adequate provision for the welfare of their employees. Factories with more than 250 employees were compelled to appoint a Welfare Officer. Advances were made in lighting and ventilation, the provision of rest rooms, canteens and medical facilities as well as a growing understanding of the value of music and entertainment in maintaining productivity.
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The Home Front in the Factories, Docks and Mines by Jon Murden